by Tony Attwood
After completing the songs for Blonde on Blonde and composing two or three items in a Glasgow Hotel, Dylan stopped writing. The most obvious reason was that after the supreme effort of writing Blonde while the band waited for each song to emerge, he was utterly exhausted. The most common reason given was a motorcycle accident, but not everyone believes this to be true.
Yet in terms of Dylan’s work as a composer it doesn’t really matter at all. He stopped, that’s all. Where it does impact on our study of Dylan is in the issue of what Dylan decided to do.
For whatever the reason for Dylan’s cessation in writing and recording, we can readily trace his return to musical activity and his change in style, starting with a series of rough recordings that are not widely available, followed by the two separate series of songs outlined here.
These songs are particularly interesting because whereas Dylan’s work the previous year was centred around creating the double album, for the first set of songs this year Dylan had no album in mind, although he most certainly could have turned his output into an LP – there was easily enough material of the highest quality here.
Without the album to create, Dylan was free to travel in every direction he felt like. As I have suggested above, the early songs of this year are incomplete, lost or known only to those with access to the tapes, and many seem to be incomplete. But we can pick up the story with the surreal tale of Tiny Montgomery – although “tale” might not be the right word. Snapshot could be better.
Nothing could be more different from that song than the second in the series: Sign on the cross which has been hailed as an “unalloyed masterpiece” and sees it as “Every bit the equal to This Wheels on Fire”. There is also talk in relation to this song of “The indivisible link between singing and salvation.” Yet if one steps outside the accolades and simply asks “what on earth does all this mean?” or even “what does this represent?” or “what does this signify”, the issue is very unclear here as it is throughout almost all of these songs.
The uncertainty happens again, with the next song this time back with the surreal character theme, in Million dollar bash where everyone gets together for what sounds like a 1960s version of one of the parties held by Evelyn Waugh’s brave new things in the 1930s. There’s no sense of the real world, no responsibility, no question of any sense of meaning in the lives of the participants. Just hedonism and a sense of right to have all this money to waste.
But the key point about the difference between the songs is that Million Dollar Bash is surreal, and so it is meant to be obscure. What is the implication of making a song about religion obscure? Normally the answer involves a relationship with Taoism or Zen, but this is a Christian song (as per the title). So I am completely lost.
What is for certain is that there is no sense of a theme in Dylan’s work at this juncture, because next Dylan wrote I’m not there, a supremely beautiful, delicate love song which he left completely unfinished.
But no sooner had he laid down the track than Dylan is throwing away all that beauty with a totally different song that was finished and yet seems so simple and indeed one might say pointless. Except that nonsense can have a sense – one might refer to Subterranean Homesick Blues for confirmation.
So this time we get…
Cloud so swift the rain fallin’ in, Gonna see a movie called Gunga Din
It’s not a revolutionary, its not beat poetry. It’s…
Next came This Wheel’s on Fire and if we want to signify what Dylan’s writing is all about at this time the contradiction between these last few songs signifies it totally. He is in fact quite clearly jumping from theme to theme, from idea to idea, perhaps going back over all the songs he never released, all the old ideas that had not yet come to fruition.
This process of writing without an album in mind proved indeed to be extremely fruitful if confusing. He didn’t need a theme – he could go anywhere, write anything. The next song I shall be released goes out on another journey – a plea that someone out there will come along and find him to help him on his way.
Then straight off comes another diversion with Too Much of Nothing which was delivered with two utterly different versions, and suffered a strange change of one of the characters’ names as it was taken up by other artists. It was also a song that remained utterly unravelled for years – although it is one in which the story line can be revealed with a little bit of digging.
Tears of rage co-written with Richard Manuel is different again, and fascinating as Manuel who wrote the music revealed later that he himself had no idea what the lyrics meant but didn’t have the nerve to ask Dylan for help.
And then Quinn the Eskimo – The Mighty Quinn in which we return to the surreal characters of earlier song, before Dylan stopped this whole sequence.
What was he saying with these songs? That songs can be about anything, and about anyone, or about nothing and no one? Quite possibly. Was he showing us what an amazing virtuoso writer he was? Most certainly. Was he setting himself a big big problem as to what he should do on the next album? Yes I think he was doing that too.
But he solved the question quickly, for Dylan then started writing a series of songs in terms of one of his favourite themes: the outsiders. It is just that this time he has the outsiders existing not just outside society but also at times outside of time of space as well as outside history and reality.
Dylan himself has said that he wrote the lyrics first, over a space of a few days, many of them on one (or a series of) train journeys. He then added the music soon after. And knowing that, and the order of the songs, Dylan’s thinking pattern becomes fairly easy to understand.
The first song in the sequence was not typical – for a start it is much much longer than the other songs which are for the most part three verses and nothing more. It was almost as if Dylan realised that if he continued to write 11 verse epics for each song, he might not get the album done in time.
But the theme of the songs – that of events being unclear and uncertain, was absolutely set, for after the epic The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest everything settled down to short sharp stories that leave us wondering quite where the world is going (and quite often where it has come from).
Drifter’s Escape (the song that tells us to forget cause and effect and which is a miracle of writing given that musically it consists of two lines over and over).
I dreamed I Saw St Augustine seems to have nothing to do with St Augustine, All along the watch tower is probably best described as a word painting with no intended meaning, while John Wesley Harding not only had his name spelled wrong, his real life was nothing much like the story told in the song.
What was Dylan doing? Perhaps reacting against the music of the era. Sgt. Pepper and Zappa’s Absolutely Free were defining the era so Dylan redefined it his way with songs that seemed like they might be real but when you come to look, are not. If anything he was allying himself with Tim Hardin not John Wesley Hardin. “How can we hang on to a dream?” could well be seen as the theme for much of this album.
So the songs continued, all in the same format and style, each obscure, each portraying a part of the American world that never quite makes sense. As I Went out one Morning was followed by I am a lonesome hobo, I pity the poor Immigrant, The Wicked Messenger and Dear Landlord. And that was it, for the album and the year. All written quickly, without any music in mind, all then realised as part of the next album.
Except that the album wasn’t complete. There was space for two more songs. But Dylan had finished with his theme around Hardin (musician) and Hardin (historical character). So he gave us two completely different pieces of work, to end the year: I’ll be your baby tonight and Down along the cove.
Perhaps just to say – “and I can also write songs like this”. And in response to the comment that “There’s no connection with the rest of the album at all,” I guess he would just shrug.
What is particularly interesting is that few, if any, reviews of the album, ever considered the songs as an ensemble. They were all considered as individual elements. And yet Dylan had taken a significant detour for this album. It was just that no one quite knew why.
The Discussion Group
We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/ It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.
The Chronology Files
There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century